Justin Upton Cuts his K Rate

Following a mildly disappointing 2010 campaign, Justin Upton is enjoying his best offensive season to date in 2011. Upton has a .299/.384/.522 triple-slash for the first-place Arizona Diamondbacks. Perhaps no longer bothered by the left shoulder injury that hampered him last season, Upton’s power has bounced back (.224 ISO in 2011, .170 in 2010). But there’s another reason why the 23-year-old is having a career year at the plate: he has cut his strikeout rate by nearly a third compared to 2010.

Last year, Upton struck out in 30.7 percent of his at-bats. That was the eighth-highest punch out rate among qualified MLB hitters. But in 2011, the former first overall pick has K’d 20.9 percent of the time. The major league average, for reference, is 20-21 percent. With Upton fanning much less often and typically getting lots of hits on balls put in play (.338 BABIP this year, .344 career average), his batting average has climbed considerably from last year’s .273 mark.

Considering that changes in strikeout rate for batters become significant at 150 plate appearances, a total that Upton has more than doubled, his drastically reduced K rate deserves attention. How has Upton pared down his strikeout rate? By employing a more aggressive approach against pitches thrown over the plate and making more contact with those in-zone offerings.

In 2010, Upton swung at 61.7 percent of pitches thrown within the strike zone (64-65 percent MLB average). This season, he’s taking a cut at 71.5 percent of in-zone pitches. His contact rate on in-zone pitches has increased from 83.3 percent to 86.1 percent (88 percent MLB average).

That sharp uptick in swings on pitches thrown in the zone has led to fewer called strikes and looking strikeouts. Upton took a called strike 30 percent of the time last season, but just 26 percent in 2011 (31 percent MLB average). He was caught looking for a third strike 7.7 percent in 2010. But this year, he has kept the bat on the shoulder while the ump rings him up only 3.6 percent (4.5 percent MLB average).

We often think of strike-zone judgment and plate discipline in terms of laying off pitches. But, as Upton’s big 2011 season shows, sometimes showing better judgment at the dish means not letting a pitch that you can drive go by for a strike.

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A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at david.golebiewski@gmail.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.

4 Responses to “Justin Upton Cuts his K Rate”

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  1. Bodhizefa says:

    Good stuff, David. I’d imagine Chris Young has seen an uptick in similar areas as he, too, seems to be swinging at more strikes this year. There were few things quite as maddening in years past as seeing both Upton and Young take very hittable pitches — sometimes even for strike three. I hope they keep up their progress. It’s a delight for fantasy owners, that’s for sure.

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  2. Anon says:

    I think it is an organizational thing. The DBacks obviously struck out a LOT last year and Kevin Towers and Kirk Gibson have both stated that was a focus of the off-season. So they shipped out Mark Reynolds and it seems obvious to me that the orders to some of their hitters was to quit working so deep into counts and start hacking earlier in the count. Both Chris Young and MIguel Montero have changes in their numbers similar to Upton – lots more swings, lots fewer K’s. Ditto Kelly Johnson – although his K’s are up, his swing rate is also up. Of holdovers, only Drew seems to be about the same as before. (Parra’s numbers are a little weird because of all the time he’s spent in the 8th spot this year – it’s bumped his walk totals by a lot.)

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  3. Bodhizefa says:

    Good call, Anon. It completely slipped my mind about the organizational shift in the off-season, and it makes a lot of sense. Whatever Gibson/Towers and the hitting instructors have done to help these guys, it’s a welcome turn of events. Seeing Upton come through in the clutch the other night with his opposite field shot after seeing him fail in that situation so many times in the past was a legitimate pleasure, and I’d have to chalk a lot of that up to his newfound approach. Kudos to the D-backs on this one.

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  4. James M. says:

    Yes, he’s swinging at more pitches in the zone this year. But he’s also swinging at more pitches outside the zone, 29.7% vs. 24.0%. That’s actually a bigger change, percentagewise.

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